As the opening credits roll against a backdrop of the exquisite needlework of a bullfighter’s suit of lights, one senses this new Spanish film may be a treat. And it is, in every way. Director/writer Pablo Berger reworks the tale of Snow White into a starkly filmed, silent black and white tale of 1920s Seville – a Spain still very much divided into haves and a vast mass of desperately poor, illiterate have-nots. This dreamy chiaroscuro serves the purpose of illustrating the numerous hard-edged dualities in Spanish life, and suit the many bullfight scenes beautifully – a sport traditionally played out in light and shadow.

When her legendary bullfighter father, Antonio Villalta, is gored in action, young Carmencita is still in her mother’s womb. Her mother dies in childbirth, and the hospital nurse (Maribel Verdú) marries her now paraplegic father. The waif goes first to live with her grandmother – Ángela Molina playing the vivacious Andalusian grandmother to perfection – but, after she has a heart attack, Carmencita is packed off to live in a dank cellar at her stepmother’s home. Here she reacquaints herself, in scenes reminiscent of Dickens’ Great Expectations, with her crippled father, who comes to life and teaches her, from his wheelchair, the rudiments of bullfighting and cape work. When the stepmother discovers these secret trysts, she murders the father, and Carmencita flees her own attempted murder, falling in with a troupe of bullfighting dwarves. Carmencita (now re-named Blancanieves) excels at the sport that runs in her blood, and the story proceeds until her day of apparent triumph, once again in the plaza de toros where her father had been gored.

Berger has taken many stylistic risks here, and one or two scenes fall short – a bad pun is poorly translated, and the apple eating is strangely out of sync with the overall aesthetic and folkloric narrative of the film, yet overall this is an entertaining triumph and 90 minutes of exquisite filmography. And with its light and shadow, rampant beasts, stately pasodobles, complex social narratives, costumes, manners, gallantry, ambition and defiant choreography, Blancanieves helps to restore – certain contemporary doubters notwithstanding – the art and aesthetic of bullfighting to its rightful place as one of Spain’s great cultural contributions to the world.

Opens October 24


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